(ATTN: RECASTS lead with latest info; ADDS more details, comments throughout)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Aug. 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired two short-range projectiles presumed to be ballistic missiles into the East Sea on Friday, South Korea's military said, the sixth such round of launches in about three weeks.
They were fired shortly after North Korea warned it could end its dialogue with South Korea in apparent protest against the ongoing Seoul-Washington military exercise and Seoul's defense plan outlining its five-year major weapons procurement projects.
The two projectiles were launched at around 8:01 and 8:16 a.m. from its eastern coastal county of Tongchon in Kangwon Province into the East Sea, and both flew around 230 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 30 km and a top speed of around Mach 6.1, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The Tongchon area is just 50 km away from the inter-Korean military demarcation line.
"The flight range, maximum height and speed of the projectiles fired today led us to presume that they appear to be short-range ballistic missiles, but more in-depth analysis is needed to confirm if they were similar ones to those fired in previous launches or not," a JCS officer said, hinting at some differences in their flight pattern.
"Our military is monitoring the situation in case of additional launches while maintaining a readiness posture," the JCS said, adding that South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are analyzing their exact type.
After holding an emergency National Security Council meeting presided over by national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae called on the North to stop firings that could heighten military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In Washington, a senior U.S. government official said the United States is aware of the missile launches and is closely monitoring the situation in cooperation with its allies.
Friday's launches came six days after North Korea fired two projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles bearing outward similarities to the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile system. They constitute the sixth round of projectile fire since July 25, when the North fired two newly developed short-range missiles known as KN-23s, its version of the Russian Iskander.
Military sources have said North Korea might have test-fired its version of ATACMS again on Friday with an alteration in flight altitude. In the Aug. 10 launches, the missiles flew around 400 km at a peak altitude of 48 km and a top speed of around 6.1 Mach.
"They could also be the multiple launch rocket system, as the development of both the ATACMS-like missile and the rocket system is still under way," Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University's Far East Institute, said, adding that the North's Iskander-type missile is believed to be almost fully operational following successful tests.
Of the latest firings, the projectiles fired on July 31 and Aug. 2 involved a "newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system," according to the North's Korean Central News Agency, while the JCS has said they were presumably short-range ballistic missiles similar to the KN-23.
North Korea has apparently been seeking to modernize its conventional weapons recently, and such moves have sparked fresh public concerns here, as all such weapons put the entire Korean Peninsula within range, and their complicated flight pattern and features such as using solid fuels and being launched from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) make them more difficult to detect and intercept, according to experts.
Since May, the North has conducted test-firings of such projectiles eight times following a 17-month hiatus.
Just a couple of hours before the latest firings, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country issued a statement with strong language in which it lashed out at President Moon's address a day earlier for Liberation Day, marking Korea's freedom from Japanese colonial rule, claiming that his usage of such terms as "worrying actions" and "provocation" by North Korea is "reckless."
In the speech, Moon said despite a series of "worrying actions taken by North Korea recently, the momentum for dialogue remains unshaken. ... Compared to the past, when the whole Peninsula experienced turbulence whenever North Korea engaged in a provocation, the situation has definitely changed."
While noting that South Korea has "defense capabilities that are even stronger (than North Korea)," Moon pledged his commitment to advancing "dialogue and cooperation" with North Korea for peace and prosperity.
In the statement, Pyongyang also denounced South Korea's ongoing joint military exercise with the U.S. and its mid-term defense plan detailing its major defense projects for the 2020-2024 period, such as the construction of a light aircraft carrier as well as securing more interceptors and radar equipment to better respond to possible threats posed by North Korea.
Claiming that all of those moves "are aimed at destroying" North Korea, the North's committee said, "We have nothing to talk any more with the South Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again."
North Korea has repeatedly warned against the combined military exercise, threatening that it would seek "a new way" rather than engagement if Seoul goes ahead with such a rehearsal for invasion.
In a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also voiced his displeasure with the joint military exercises.
Expressing his "small apology for testing the short-range missiles," Kim told Trump that such saber-rattling would stop when the exercises end, according to Trump.
Saying that such drills are defensive in nature, Seoul and Washington said that the ongoing exercise that kicked off in earnest on Monday for a 10-day program is meant to test South Korea's operational capabilities for the conditions-based transition of wartime operational control of combined forces from Washington to Seoul.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, the North is banned from test-firing ballistic missiles.
But Trump has brushed off recent tests by the North and boasted of his good relations with Kim, stressing that Pyongyang has not tested long-range missiles or nuclear devices in the current phase of peace efforts.
Kim expressed his will to resume talks with the U.S. on its nuclear programs "as soon as" the joint military exercise is over, according to the U.S. president. The negotiations have been stalled since the no-deal Hanoi summit in February.
During their surprise meeting in the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom at the end of June, Trump and Kim agreed to resume their nuclear talks, and the U.S. has suggested working-level talks.